In 2018, more than 58,000 wildfires raged in the U.S., burning more than 1.5 million acres. In 2019, from January 1 to May 10, there have already been more than 10,000. Last year’s Camp Fire in Northern California was the deadliest and most destructive fire on record for California.
The problem is global, and the effects are devastating to homeowners, local businesses, and the first responders who exhaust themselves extinguishing the flames. Response efforts involve a wide range of agencies at all levels of government, including the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) and its partners at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and U.S. Fire Administration (USFA).
DHS S&T, FEMA and USFA are working closely with the national and international first responder community on the growing problem of fires in the wildland-urban interface (WUI).
The WUI is land that stands between the undeveloped, natural land and developed, urban areas. As more and more families move from the urban sprawl to more rural, natural areas, firefighters are quickly seeing they have to better understand changing wildfire behavior in regards to climate changes. According to the National Fire Protection Association, homes in the WUI are at greater risk of damage from wildfires. These fires are vast and spread quickly, covering tracts of land and destroying any home in their path.
FEMA is focused on enhancing community resilience to wildland fires, improving public safety, and increasing the effectiveness of mitigation and building codes, infrastructure protection and preparedness. This includes improving and addressing operational issues for wildland fire detection, monitoring, alerts and warnings, and public communications and intergovernmental coordination.
In December 2017, FEMA asked S&T to conduct a scoping study to investigate new and emerging technologies (identified by S&T’s Tech Scouting and Transition team) that could be applied to increasingly destructive wildland fires. The effort drew on the special expertise of firefighters and emergency managers in California (CAL Fire and CAL OES) and Tennessee, fire science and surveillance expertise at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Forest Service, and decision support analysis from Decision Lens, S&T’s contracted project support.
S&T delivered findings from the study to FEMA in June 2019 after conducting a series of table top exercises with federal, state, and local stakeholders as well as partnering with the state of California on a Wildland Fire Technology Innovation Summit that occurred in April 2019. Results from the study indicate that despite the exceptional problems and risks associated with WUI fires, existing technologies and approaches can be applied in innovative ways to save lives and property. These include marshalling existing in-place, aerial and space-based sensing to detect ignition and track fires cheaply and in real time; adapting the existing Integrated Public Alerts and Warning System to include WUI events; putting special focus on alerting the Access and Functional Needs segments of the population; and increasing infrastructure resilience in the WUI zone. Strides can also be made by using existing private, open and crowd-sourced data to improve public safety situational awareness.
S&T is determining how to best use available research funds to close WUI-related gaps related to DHS missions. As part of understanding those gaps, S&T needed to talk to those on the front lines.
In May 2019, DHS S&T and the Centre for Security Science at Defence Research and Development Canada recently hosted the 2019 Smart Firefighter (SFF) workshop to address growing concerns around wildfires and WUI. The SFF workshop provided a platform for its participants to bring together their shared knowledge and experiences to plan for the future, explained S&T Program Manager John Merrill.
“I believe both our nations operate in similar fashion during response and have similar hazards when involved,” said Canadian emergency responder Capt. David Matschke, Ottawa Fire Service. “We operate under the same standards and similar response models and thus have the same issues. We need to work together to solve some of the large issues that confront us. Also, differing perspectives will help highlight issues that may not be apparent.”
The SFF workshop brought together American, Canadian and Dutch wildfire experts to examine and critically think about methods and technologies that can have an immediate effect on public safety during wildfires, as well as look into the potential gaps that exist and work to find solutions in the future, said participant David Zader, Fire Management Officer from Boulder, Colorado.
“Wildland and WUI fires are an urgent global problem,” explained Director of the Dutch Public Safety Institute Ilje Stelstra. “We must exchange best practices and deepen our comprehensive knowledge in the field. We all have the same level of technology and understanding on this topic, but the way we deal with it in terms of dispatch, command and control, risk behavior, risk communication, risk management, cooperation in the field, etc., are oftentimes very different. We can benefit from sharing and broadening our vision, strategy and tactics.”
Our objective, Merrill explained, was to capture common capability needs for responding to wildfires and WUI fires, focusing on key decision points. We used FEMA’s Core Capabilities to identify, document and catalog common needs based on capabilities rather than jurisdictions or responder disciplines. We identified 32 needs across public information and warnings, operational coordination, operational communications and situational assessment areas.
S&T is planning follow-up meetings with both Canada and the Netherlands, and will continue to collaborate with FEMA to identify high pay-off research and development projects that DHS can contribute to the national effort to manage increasingly destructive wildfires.Photo Captions:
1. Camp fire in the town of Paradise, California. Photo courtesy of Roseville Fire Department, California
2. Wildland fire area in southern California. S&T photo
3. Utility workers secure power lines during 2018 wildfires in Paradise California. Photo courtesy of Roseville Fire Department, California